Melissa Tong

Lest We Forget

When I was young, both my parents were busy at work, so during my early childhood, my grandparents mainly raised me. Unlike most children, rather than hearing about fairytales, fables, and folk stories, I was brought up listening to my grandmother telling me about her past and stories of her family. But in order for her to explain how she immigrated to Canada, she had to first tell me about her father.

In China, my great-grandfather was an only child in his family; therefore his mother and grandma adored him. Meanwhile his father who lived in BC and the Canadian Prairies, apparently participated in working for the Canadian Pacific Railway. His father was a frugal man. In order to provide for his family back in China, most of the money he made was spent back so that his family could be well comfortable and live without worries. In addition, his father had managed to save and borrow a small portion of money from his friends to pay off the five hundred dollar Head Tax so that his son would be able to emigrate to Canada. Since the Head Tax was a hefty amount; only my great-grandfather came to Canada, while his mother and grandma remained behind in China.

My great-grandfather told my grandma that he emigrated to British Columbia when he was about twelve years old. When he first came to Canada, he hated it. In China, he had many friends and was used to being spoiled and loved by his family; whereas, in Canada, he was always being bullied and picked on by fellow classmates because he wasn’t able to speak English. Since his father was always busy working, there was no one for him to share his sorrows with. However, these extreme changes in his life allowed him to gain independence and maturity.

As a teenager, he managed to get a job working at a restaurant. By the time he was approximately 18 years old, he went back to China for a visit and married my great-grandmother. Back then, there was no such thing as dating; marriage was arranged by parents from both sides of the family. Not long after the marriage, my great-grandfather returned back to BC to continue working since he now had a family of his own to provide for in China. And he eventually opened up his own Chinese restaurant. His trips to China were very infrequent, and he missed out on seeing his children grow up. The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 made it basically impossible for his family to immigrate to Canada. By the time he was financially well off and had enough money to sponsor his family to Canada, the “Mao era” made it very difficult for his family members to emigrate. It wasn’t until the 1970s that applications for sponsoring one’s spouse and dependents could finally be processed. By 1980, his wife and his child (my grandma) were once again reunited in British Columbia.

I recently asked my grandmother if she had any pictures of my great-grandfather; surprisingly there is an album filled with pictures of him with his friends and family. From the pictures, I see a well-dressed man wearing a tuxedo and a brimmed hat, and occasionally just wearing a collared shirt. When I asked my grandmother if she knew of the details of her father’s immigration to Canada and how it affected him, she responded, she did not know unfortunately. But then again, what parent would want to burden their family with stories of hardship? They would rather keep those sad stories to themselves and share only the joyous memories of their family.

As I flipped through the album, I saw many pictures of my great-grandfather with his male friends; I guess this reflects on the ‘Bachelor Society’ at the time. I’m sure it must have been tough and lonely to live without his family.

I was born and raised in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. The students in my elementary school were primarily Asians; therefore there was rarely any racial discrimination between students. Now that I am in university, there are many different clubs that promote one’s own heritage, culture, and beliefs— all supporting multiculturalism. Fortunately, I personally have not experienced racial discrimination. However, I have friends who have been verbally discriminated against because of their race. In addition, within social media one can see there are some minorities that are discriminated against in their workplace and community despite Canada being well known for a being a multicultural society. Racial discrimination has declined, but it still exists and it is a very important issue that needs to be looked into and not ignored.

I find that the Chinese Canadian community has been spreading geographically. Decades ago in Vancouver, the “Chinatown bachelor community” mainly lived in Chinatown. Today, most Vancouverites of Chinese origin are dispersed to different parts of BC with most in Richmond. Since Vancouver’s Chinatown is located next to the impoverished Downtown Eastside neighborhood, many want to avoid the negativity of poverty, drug use, crime, and violence sometimes associated within the general area. Although some original features of Chinatown have faded away, Chinatown continues to possess well-preserved oriental style buildings, which help contribute to an authentic Chinese-Canadian atmosphere.


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